From Rambo to Norma Shearer. You never know what you’re going to find on the Corner.
“Marie Antoinette” (1938) is considered by many to be one of the most sumptuous mega productions of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And it is. It’s also long and meandering, but wonderfully acted and boasts one scene that is truly heart wrenching.
Despite M-G-Ms’ abundance of female stars in the 1930s (Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, etc.) Norma Shearer was the queen of the M-G-M lot. But she was off the nation’s theater screens for two years following the death of her husband, M-G-M production head Irving Thalberg in 1936. Thalberg had started production on the film before his premature death, and M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer halted pre-production on the film until she was ready to step before the cameras again. And she was ready two years later.
True to its subject, “Marie Antoinette” is a stunning production, with the Court of Versailles captured in all its magnificence and decadence. Shearer is most convincing as the young Hapsburg princess catapulted into marriage with the future king of France, Louis XV (Robert Morley, in his film debut). The Hays Office watched carefully that good taste was not overstepped in detailing the non-consummation of their married relationship. Through carefully scripted dialogue, however, the audience fully understands what is happening. They also understood why the married Marie would begin an affair with a handsome visitor from the Swedish court, Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power).
Eventually Louis XIV dies (the gloriously lecherous John Barrymore, not in the film nearly as much as we’d like), and Louis XV ascends to the throne. With his father’s shadow now dissipated, Louis XV is now ready to come into his own. He fathers a son and a daughter, the Swedish count is away in America and he and Marie settle into a happy relationship. Things may be happy in the palace, but not the rest of France. The peasants are starving, and revolution is afoot.
The recent DVD release of the film showcases “Marie Antoinette” in a way not seen since its 1938 engagement. The DVD boasts an overture, intermission and exit music, courtesy of M-G-M staff composer Herbert Stothart. With the extra music the film runs a healthy 157 minutes. It could use a little judicious cutting, mainly in the pre-revolution scenes in the first half.
This was the big, prestigious production of 1938, so much so that Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck loaned their biggest male star, Tyrone Power, to appear alongside Shearer. Upon seeing the completed film, he immediately regretted his decision, and never loaned Power out again. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why. After all Power shares top billing with Shearer above the title, and it didn’t hurt Power to be in one of the top films of the year. Shearer’s return to the screen after two years meant the film enjoyed an unusually high level of interest and publicity. He’s given plenty of footage, and wears his costumes beautifully. Certainly the role is no worse than what Fox was giving him. His romantic scenes with Shearer were sure to please his many female admirers, especially a beautifully shot scene on a moonlit balcony.
Perhaps Zanuck was incensed that his top star was not the center of attention, but subservient to the top female star of another studio. It’s too bad he felt that way, since it lost Power other loan out roles, where he would have been able to show his acting chops in ways he was never allowed to at Fox. For instance, Warner Bros. wanted Power to play the idealistic Parris Mitchell in “King’s Row” (1941) but Zanuck said no. Too bad, he would have been perfect in the role and it would have made that magnificent film even better. (Many people feel that the eventual Parris Mitchell, Robert Cummings, is the weak link of “King’s Row”).
What’s odd is how much the film favors the Shearer-Power romance. A natural point for the intermission occurs when it is announced Louis XV will be King of France and Marie Antoinette Queen of France. The scene ends with music swelling and a radiant close-up of Shearer. In fact, I thought it was intermission time (i.e. bathroom break) and started to get up. But no, the film continues and the intermission comes after the farewell scene between Marie and Axel. It’s a beautifully played (and photographed) scene, and the camera tracks Power as he leaves her, walking forward while she recedes in the background. It’s obvious the makers felt the love story was the more important element of the film, and not Marie becoming Queen of France. You would think Zanuck would be happy about the film’s focus.
The film’s second half is much livelier, as revolution threatens the French kingdom. Peasants are starving, yet Marie is spending a million plus francs on a new necklace. (She really hasn’t, though, being part of a scheme to embarrass the French court. She needed Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan to get that necklace back.)
One can’t say enough good things about Robert Morley’s performance as Louis. It’s obvious the poor guy doesn’t want to be king, and is thrust into a role he can barely comprehend. Things get worse when revolution threatens the land and he tries to rally his soldiers. He can barely get the words out and you feel his shame and humiliation as the troops laugh at him.
Curiously though the revolution seems to embolden him. In the film’s best scene, he enjoys a last dinner with his wife and children. The four dine together on onion soup in a prison cell. Louis knows he’s going to the guillotine the next morning but doesn’t let on to his children, putting up a brave front and even offering to fix his son’s broken toy. It’s a beautifully played scene and probably the best scene in the film.
Shearer is good too in her final scenes. She allows herself to be aged and dirtied up as she is released in prison and led to her execution. No careful lighting or make up for her, she looks likes been through the wringer as she takes her final steps.
A few years ago, Kirsten Dunst essayed the role of Marie Antoinette. It wasn’t a bad movie, and I didn’t even mind the contemporary songs on the soundtrack. But it’s pretty dull; “dramatically inert” I remember telling a friend. The 1938 version also has its flaws, but its virtues eventually outweigh them.
Rating for “Marie Antoinette”: Three stars.